A traditional undergraduate entering college this fall was probably an infant on September 11, 2001. Across my courses, most of my younger students no longer remember the day itself. They remember fragmented impressions of its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of older family members and teachers. Or they remember only the impression that something really bad had happened. They summon up images of adults in tears, holding mysterious school assemblies or sending them home early, trying vainly to comfort themselves by offering comfort to uncomprehending kids.
September 11, which I do remember vividly, now occupies the same role for many of my students that the late days of the Cold War had for me. It was a moment of tectonic power, causing frequent aftershocks ever since, that defines their lives without their really being there for it. But there is a difference.
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For the U.S. survey, I’ve just updated tomorrow’s usual lecture on human migration to the Americas to include a specific discussion of “Luzia.”
Having lived about 11,500 years ago, she was one of the oldest sets of human remains in the Americas. She has been a subject of ongoing study, a crucial piece of evidence for researchers debating human arrival and migration patterns in the hemisphere.
She may have been destroyed in the fire that consumed Brazil’s Museu Nacional last night—perhaps one loss to scholarship among millions. I hardly know what to say, but I hope to use the fire as a terrible occasion to emphasize the fragility of historical knowledge, its interconnectedness across regions of the world, and the necessity of robust public funding to protect it.
Image: A cast of Luzia’s skull at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Ryan Somma. Shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.